As a young entrepreneur in the mid-1980s, Lee Heckman was seeking a spot close to home for his fledgling business. “I kind of considered other areas,” he recalls. “I went to Sewickley. I went to Fox Chapel, Squirrel Hill, the South Side, the Strip District, and really didn’t see any reason to go anywhere else.”
It’s been nearly 35 years since Lee Heckman Custom Framing and Gallery opened as the Beverly Road Shops, the one-block-long commercial district along Route 19 in his native Mt. Lebanon.
“We’re still here,” he says, “and business is as good as it’s ever been.”
While many of America’s malls and shopping centers contend with trying to fill empty space, Beverly Road continues to thrive as a throwback to the era of friendly neighborhood shopkeepers.
“Eight out of 10 times, you go into one of these stores and the owner is going to be there,” Melissa Sacco Pruitt says. “People actually want to talk to you. You make a lot of friends. I have customers who have been coming here 20-some years. They’re very loyal. If you do a good job, they’re loyal.”
She’s been making friends on Beverly Road since 1996, when she opened the first location for her floral shop, the Blooming Dahlia. Since then, she’s moved twice while staying on the same street.
“It’s just something special,” she explains. “Everybody knows each other. All the business owners make sure they have each other’s backs.”
Beverly Road traces its business roots back to the mid-1920, with the street’s first gas station meeting what at the time was a new demand.
“We’re really one of the first communities in the nation that developed around the automobile, back in the early 20th century,” Eric Milliron, Mt. Lebanon’s economic development officer and commercial districts manager, says.
Soon afterward came the likes of the likes of grocers, pharmacies, bakeries, banks, gift shops, variety stores and, to the enjoyment of students on their way home from nearby Lincoln Elementary School, places to buy candy and ice cream.
“Beverly Road really developed and by every definition is a truly neighborhood-serving business district that complements the residences around there,” Milliron explains. “It’s historically been 100 percent occupied. It’s been a vibrant district since I’ve been here, for the last 10 years. There have been transitions there, but all have been very well-received by the community.”
Heckman, whose store has been in its current location since 1986, notes one transition that has proved to be particularly popular: Coffee Tree Roasters opening one of its shops in Mt. Lebanon.
“That really seemed to bring a lot of people to the area, and they keep coming back,” he says. “All the people who came here before still come here. But that brought a whole other, new set of folks who come back. And being right next to Coffee Tree, we’ve gotten great exposure.”
Having a variety of restaurants along Beverly Road helps as well. Still flourishing after having started around the same time as Heckman’s business are two eateries established by some of his Mt. Lebanon High School classmates: Frank and Sam Badolato with Bado’s Pizza Grill & Ale House, and Lee and David Kaplan with Little Nipper’s Pizza.
In 2006, Jeff and Carol Iovino opened a restaurant now called Café io, and the couple also operate io Deli and, as of August, Taco Diablo.
“Mt. Lebanon is always interesting to me because it’s perceived as the ‘cake eaters,’ but it’s really not. There are a lot of really hard-working people in this town who live and work here,” Jeff says. “If you talk to people, this is Middle America, which is a good thing. We need more of that these days.”
Many Americans also would contend that they need more family-friendly environments, and Beverly Road fits the bill, especially with its proximity to Lincoln Elementary. On their way home, students often drop in at various businesses, including the Blooming Dahlia.
“They’re so polite and such nice kids,” Gerry Sacco, Melissa’s mother, says about the ones who stop to hang out for a bit and take the ladies up on their offer of a lollipop. “One of the boys says, ‘Here, Melissa. Here’s your rent.’ And he gives her a bag of Doritos.”
That’s been going on for quite some time, apparently.
“I’ve done weddings for the little kids at Lincoln. I mean, they used to come in here when I first opened,” Melissa says. “They have awesome memories of leaving school and going to all the shops.”
The commercial district also serves as a route for folks who are on their way to and from Meadowcroft Park, located next to the school.
“In the summer, we come up here and walk all the time,” nearby resident Melissa Shell says during one of her frequent visits. “It’s just a great little spot, super-friendly people. It’s great to come and walk around and sit on a bench and enjoy a cup of coffee.”
As for Beverly Road’s viability, Milliron gives credit where it’s due.
“The folks who are operating their businesses there do it at the highest level and respond to what their customers want to see,” he explains. “They’re a part of the community. They give back a lot to Mt. Lebanon, and Mt. Lebanon gives back a lot to them by patronizing their businesses. It’s a great symbiotic relationship.”
And he’s sufficiently impressed.
“I like to say, if I’m ever stranded on a desert island and I could take something with me, I’d take Beverly Road,” he says. “It pretty much has everything I need.”